BRATTLEBORO — I’ve just finished reading the wonderful book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May, and her beautiful book reminds me why winter is such a precious time of year for me.
Her story is a poetic memoir, an investigation of her inner and outer worlds. Most poignantly, the book opens with a courageous revelation of her inner-world struggles — a nosedive into fear and uncertainty as her husband faces a grave health challenge, her 6-year-old son refuses to return to school, and she herself makes the radical decision to leave the security of her teaching position amid an emotional crisis that demands silence, sleep, and a steady diet of reflection and self-exploration.
What she teaches us is that there is not just one kind of winter — a season on the calendar — but the need for “wintering” at times of challenge, transition, and fresh yearnings of the spirit.
In her outer-world adventures, Ms. May takes us from winter solstice ceremony at Stonehenge, to sauna in Scandinavia, to icy January plunges in the Atlantic with friends.
She partakes of these things as a way to process her inner turmoil, making use of the spiritual medicine and physically rousing properties they offer to her. She pairs them with long winter mornings at home beneath the covers, searching for the inner resources that will carry her forward into the next, and as yet unknown, chapter of her life.
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Our own snowstorm on Jan. 23 was a true reminder for me of what winter can be: the silence of falling snow muting the sounds of dwindling traffic; the intricate lacework of overlapping boughs and branches wearing white stockings; the scurry of small animals tunneling their way through the chilling blanket that rises hour by hour. A friend’s photo of his yardstick emerging from the snowfall, measuring 14 inches.
With the dwindling of snowfall during recent years, a day when nature calls a halt to our daily routine is a rare gift — especially on a Monday, that day of the week when so many of us push ourselves to make the transition between relative rest (if we are so fortunate) and the return to busy-ness.
With thick snow falling, my friend and I, she on snowshoes and I without, head into the Retreat Trails near the stone tower, down the hill to Cedar Street. No sign or sound of a car. Past the ski jump, and uphill to the Ice Pond — a lovely body of water embedded in the midst of forest high above the Retreat Farm.
During our journey, huge hemlocks shiver and release massive amounts of snow toward the ground with a great thwunck. Boughs break under the burden of snow, with a cracking noise that sends us scrambling for safety.
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Unlike most folks, I celebrate happily the day when the clocks get turned back. Early dark gives me license to spend more time in the interior — within my warm home, within my emotional and imagination-driven worlds, within reverie, amid reflections about where I’ve been and where I might be headed.
I watch the fire and do nothing else, and I feel at peace. I revisit the intentions I’ve formulated for living my life, measure them against new longings, goals, ideas, and aspirations. I ponder the contours of my life with gratitude, with grief, with celebration.
I remind myself that beyond and beneath a steady stream of endless thoughts, fetters, and concerns, I am a cosmic being, filled to the brim with awe as I dwell on a miraculously formed planet spinning through space. I contemplate beginnings and endings.
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“In the depths of Winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer,” wrote Albert Camus. Rilke considered the cold season the time for tending one’s inner garden. Maria Popova writes, in her rich and rewarding publication The Marginalian, “[I]f we are to reap winter’s quiet and invisible spiritual rewards, it seems that special regard must be paid to the day of the season’s onset as the time to set such interior intentions.”
Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, wrote this: “I stood at the window, the bay window on which one summer a waxen-looking grasshopper had breathed puff-puff, and thought, I won’t see this year again, not again so innocent; and longing wrapped round my throat like a scarf....” Later, she writes: “Another year has twined away, unrolled and dropped across nowhere....”
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Winter is traditionally a time that is associated with death, and I find it to be a good time for contemplating my own.
I lie on my sofa with Arlo the cat on my chest and think about what my body will feel like 10 years from now, at the age of 81. I might still be dwelling in this body, or perhaps my body will be gently dissolving beneath the earth in my green burial patch of ground at the Meeting House Cemetery.
If I’m very fortunate, I’ll still be swimming a good distance in the deep ocean — heaven on Earth! — or perhaps by then I might only be able to hobble to the froth at water’s edge.
Perhaps the only contact I will have with my beloved outdoors will be from my chair at the window. As my spiritual tradition advises, I attempt to embrace all experience with wholehearted friendliness — even, or especially, the parts I find difficult to dwell upon.
I learn, gradually, that the more I dwell upon my own inevitable illness and death, the more I experience peace around their inevitability.
Winter is also a time not just of death but of rebirth — of aspects of nature, and of aspects of my own nature. In the quiet of the cold season, lying under thick blankets and sitting in front of steaming bowls of hot soup, gazing up into the winter sky or watching birds flit from branch to bare branch, I heal old wounds, contemplate the scars left behind, and celebrate my dedication to my own spiritual evolution.
I give thanks for the wisdom given me by benefactors near and far, living and gone, and I know that when given the opportunity, I will pass some version of this wisdom along to others.
I pause long enough to see my place in the Circle of Life, and in so doing, become intimate with the gifts I have inherited, as well as the gifts I have built from the ground up, using courage and determination as bricks and mortar.
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Who are you today? And who do you wish to become, while still in this body, in this passing season?
Do you trust your intuition? Do you crave adventure?
Do you love with your whole heart? How is your love cultivated, and where do you deposit it?
Can a toothache or a broken toe be a reminder of the exquisiteness of dwelling within a physical form? Are you curious? What parts of you are asking for comfort and repair?
Winter is the season for contemplating questions like these — not just to reveal their answers but holding the questions themselves as the precious opportunities granted to a life that grows with each passing year, into its next iteration, season by glorious season.
May you reap the abundance of invisible growth that this seemingly bare season holds in store for you.